Notes Masters on Mickelsons mind Top 100 courses

By Doug FergusonMarch 29, 2011, 8:39 pm
ORLANDO, Fla. – It’s become a tired phrase that players have the Masters on their mind this time of the year. For Phil Mickelson, it has never been more true.

Mickelson is playing the Houston Open this week because he prefers to compete the week before a major. But given his disdain for the works of Rees Jones, who designed Redstone Golf Club, he said he will play shots that might not make a lot of sense, all to get ready for Augusta National.

“Houston is not going to set up well for me,” Mickelson said last week.

His biggest complaint is that the fairways narrow after about 285 yards off the tee, which tends to limit power players to a 3-wood off the tee. Mickelson plans to hit driver, anyway.

“It’s not going to be a course where I’m going to play the most strategic and expect to really score well,” he said. “I’m just not going to hit 3-woods off the tee and play that course strategically the week before Augusta. And then when it gets windy and I’m trying to hit high balls for Augusta, and it requires a low, knockdown shot … it’s not going to work.”

This is a week where he’s not interested in results.

Mickelson doesn’t believe he has to win before he gets to the Masters – last year was proof of that – as long as he feels good about his game. He recalls starting to feel confident at Houston a year ago.

He also could put two drivers in play at Augusta. Mickelson said he has a similar driver to when he won the Masters in 2006, with 5.9 degrees of loft and a 46-inch shaft.

“And it goes,” he said with a smile. “Yeah, it really goes.”
TOP 100 COURSES: Augusta National again is No. 1 in Golf Digest’s biennial ranking of “America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses,” beating out Pine Valley Golf Club by a fraction of a point.

The most peculiar change about this year’s list is the title. Because of a tie for 100th place between two South Carolina resorts (Harbour Town and Ocean Forest) there actually are 101 courses on the list.

Augusta National has been No. 1 on the last two lists. The only other time in the last decade that Pine Valley didn’t top the list was in 2001, when Pebble Beach beat out the private New Jersey club.

The full top 10: Augusta National, Pine Valley, Shinnecock Hills, Oakmont, Cypress Point, Pebble Beach, Merion, Winged Foot, Sand Hills and National Golf Links.

Of the nine courses not in the previous ranking, the highest-rated was The Alotian Club in Arkansas at No. 14.

Golf Digest has produced “America’s 100 Greatest” list since 1966. The package, which also includes the 100 best public courses and a ranking for each state, appears in the May issue of the magazine, which will be available April 5.
Q-SCHOOL STORY: The PGA Tour is contemplating the radical change of handing out only Nationwide Tour cards at Q-School, in part to make sure promising young players are properly prepared for the big leagues.

Neale Smith can understand that thinking better than most.

Smith, an Australian living in Southern California, works as a mental coach for the likes of Hunter Mahan and Jason Day and as a swing coach for other players. In a previous life, he was one of the biggest surprises to make it through Q-School.

As a graduate assistant at Cal State-Fullerton, he taught golf among other activities. When he finished his master’s degree, Smith was good enough to break par and idealistic enough to chase his dream. An exceptional athlete – he competed at the 1984 Olympic trials in the high jump until getting injured – Smith dabbled in a couple of mini-tour events before trying Q-School.

He barely made it through the first two stages, and it all came together in the final stage at the TPC Woodlands, where he shared medalist honors with Brett Ogle, Skip Kendall, Massy Kuramoto and Percy Moss. Before he knew it, he was a PGA Tour member.

“I seriously thought I was going to be up there for 20 years,” Smith said. “But I had so little experience in tournament golf.”

He laughs now at his routine. Smith said he would stretch and work out for two hours, then go through a regular warm-up on the range and play his round. He would be the last one on the range that night. He also fiddled with new equipment.

“If there are eight rookie errors, I made at least six of them,” he said. “All the stupid stuff you shouldn’t do, I did it. And it’s a huge gap from Q-School success to success on Tour.”

That much was obvious by his results. He made only six cuts in 22 tournaments in 1993. His best finish was his last tournament of the year, a tie for 64th in the Texas Open. He wound up making $11,413 and was 234th on the money list.

He never made it back.

Smith’s amazing rags-to-riches tale got enough attention to earn sponsor exemptions in Australia, and he spent the next several years playing the Canadian Tour. He tried Q-School eight more times without getting through.

“One of my only regrets is that after being a touring pro for four or five years, I didn’t get another shot,” he said. “I was more prepared. I really knew what I was doing. There were so many other things I didn’t know how to do after I got my card. I learned over time. If I had ever gotten through Q-School again, I would have had a much more legitimate chance.”

The Tour’s proposal is for PGA Tour players who failed to finish in the top 125 to compete in a three-event “playoff” with top Nationwide Tour players to determine who gets PGA Tour cards the next year. The only cards available at Q-School would be for the Nationwide Tour.

The concern is losing out on stories like Smith.

“It takes some of the romanticism out of Q-School. Some of the stories seem compelling,” Smith said. “But I also think the Nationwide Tour is a much fairer test to see if you can survive. Some guys can get up there, but they’re not good enough to stay up there.”
DIVOTS: During the induction ceremony for the National Black Golf Hall of Fame, keynote speaker Steve Mona of the World Golf Foundation said plans were under way for a special exhibit at the World Golf Hall of Fame that would tell the story of blacks’ journey in golf. He said the exhibit would open in 2012. The inductees were Joe Louis Barrow, Jr., CEO of The First Tee; golf entrepreneur Rose Harper and Calvin Sinnette, author of “Forbidden Fairways.” … Martin Laird’s win at Bay Hill was the 300th by a Nationwide Tour alumnus. … Nick Watney has earned the most ranking points this year, slightly more than Martin Kaymer and Mark Wilson.
STAT OF THE WEEK: Only three players among the top 50 in the world ranking were not there at the start of the year.
FINAL WORD: “I still have yet to play a great par 5 that’s over 600 yards.” – Jim Furyk.
Getty Images

Arizona grabs last spot with eagle putt, playoff win

By Ryan LavnerMay 22, 2018, 3:18 am

STILLWATER, Okla. – With her team freefalling in the standings, Arizona coach Laura Ianello was down to her last stroke.

The Wildcats began the final round of the NCAA Championship in third place, but they were 19 over par for the day, and outside the top-8 cut line, with only one player left on the course.

Bianca Pagdaganan had transferred from Gonzaga to compete for NCAA titles, and on the 17th hole Ianello told her that she needed to play “the best two holes of your life” to keep the dream alive.

She made par on 17, then hit a 185-yard 6-iron out of a divot to 30 feet. Not knowing where she stood on the final green, Pagdaganan felt an eerie calm over the ball. Sure enough, she buried the eagle putt, setting off a raucous celebration and sending the Wildcats into a play-five, count-four team playoff with Baylor at 33 over par.

Their match-play spot wasn’t yet secure, but Ianello still broke down in tears.

NCAA Women’s DI Championship: Team scoring

NCAA Women’s DI Championship: Individual scoring

“Bianca is such an inspiration for all of us,” she said. “She’s the kind of kid that you want to root for, to have good things happen to.”

Arizona prevailed on the second playoff hole. As the 8 seed, the Wildcats will play top-seeded UCLA in the quarterfinals Tuesday at Karsten Creek.

Though the finish had plenty of drama, no teams played their way into the coveted top 8 on the final day of stroke-play qualifying.

Baylor came closest. The Bears barely advanced past regionals after a mysterious stomach virus affected several players and coaches. They competed in the final round with just four healthy players.

On Monday, Gurleen Kaur put Baylor in position to advance, shooting 68, but the Bears lost by three strokes on the second extra hole.

Arkansas finished one shot shy of the team playoff. The second-ranked Razorbacks, who entered NCAAs as one of the pre-tournament favorites, having won seven times, including their first SEC title, couldn’t overcome a 308-300 start and finished 10th. Player of the Year favorite Maria Fassi finished her week at 19 over par and counted only two rounds toward the team total.

Getty Images

Kupcho gets redemption with NCAA title

By Ryan LavnerMay 22, 2018, 2:54 am

STILLWATER, Okla. – Driving from Chicago to Denver the night of the 2017 NCAA Women’s Championship, Mike Kupcho was worried about what the next two days might bring.

A few hours earlier, he’d watched his 20-year-old daughter, Jennifer, take a two-shot lead into the 71st hole at Rich Harvest Farms. With just 127 yards left for her approach, she hit her pitching wedge the one place she couldn’t afford to miss – short, in the pond – and then compounded the error with a three-putt. The triple bogey dropped her one shot behind Arizona State’s Monica Vaughn.

Kupcho conducted a series of teary interviews afterward, but she had no time to dwell on the heartbreaking finish. She hopped on a plane back home and competed in a 36-hole U.S. Open qualifier two days later.

“We were worried about how she’d react – I didn’t know what to expect,” Mike said. “I would have been a wreck.”

But Jennifer fired a 66 in the opening round, then a 72 in the afternoon to earn medalist honors.

NCAA Women’s DI Championship: Team scoring

NCAA Women’s DI Championship: Individual scoring

“Well,” Mike said, “I guess she’s over it.”

Kupcho made it official Monday at Karsten Creek, claiming the NCAA title that should have been hers last May.

The Wake Forest junior won by two shots – the same margin she blew a year ago – for her fourth victory of the season, vaulting her into contention for the Annika Award.

“It’s just exciting to get here after everything I’ve been through,” she said.

Entering the final round in a share of the lead, Kupcho birdied the first but played Nos. 5-7 in 4 over par. It seemed like another collapse was brewing.

“I told her she’s going to have to face some adversity at some point,” said Wake Forest assistant Ryan Potter, who walked alongside her Monday. “There was a lot of golf to play, especially on a course like this.”

A birdie on 11 sent her on her way. She added a birdie on the drivable 12th, dropped another one on the par-5 14th and then canned a 60-footer for birdie on 16.

And so there she was again, two shots clear with two holes to go, when she stepped to the tee on the 17th. She piped a drive down the center, then flushed her approach directly over the flag, leading to a stress-free par. On 18, with water all the way down the left side, she nuked her second shot into the middle of the green for a two-putt birdie.

If there were any lingering questions about whether Kupcho could close, she answered them emphatically Monday. She carded five back-nine birdies for a two-shot victory over Stanford’s Andrea Lee (66) and Arizona’s Bianca Pagdaganan (72).

“Redemption,” Potter said. “She knew she could do it. It was just a matter of holding the trophy.”

After last year’s devastating finish, Potter tacked a photo on his closet wall of a victorious Arizona State team posing with the NCAA trophy. Each day was a reminder of how close they’d come.

“That sticks with you,” he said.

There were areas of Kupcho's game to shore up – namely chipping and bunker play – and she worked tirelessly to turn them into strengths. She built momentum throughout the season, culminating with a dominant regional performance in which she tied a school record by shooting 15 under, holed the winning putt to send her teammates to the NCAA Championship and became just the second player in history to win a regional in consecutive years.

“She’s interesting,” Potter said, “because the bigger the tournament, the bigger the stage, the better she plays.”

Indeed, Kupcho became the first player in a decade to finish in the top 6 in three consecutive NCAAs.

Here at Karsten Creek, she tied a women’s course record with a 7-under 65 in the opening round. And even though she backed up on Day 2, she played the last two rounds in 3 under to claim the title.

The one she kicked away a year ago.

Getty Images

Kupcho wins NCAA title; final eight teams set

By Jay CoffinMay 22, 2018, 1:55 am

STILLWATER, Okla. – On one of the more nerve-racking days of the college golf season two important honors were up for grabs at Karsten Creek – the individual title, and the top eight teams attempting to qualify for match play.

Here’s the lowdown of what happened Monday at the women’s NCAA Championship:

Individual leaderboard (total scores): Jennifer Kupcho, Wake Forest (-8); Andrea Lee, Stanford (-6); Bianca Pagdanganan, Arizona (-6); Cheyenne Knight, Alabama (-5); Morgane Metraux, Florida State (-4); Jaclyn Lee, Ohio State (-3).

Team leaderboard: UCLA (+9), Alabama (+9), USC (+16), Northwestern (+21), Stanford (+28), Duke (+30), Kent State (+32), Arizona (+33).

What it means: Let’s start with the individual race. Wake Forest junior Jennifer Kupcho was absolutely devastated a year ago when she made triple bogey on the 17th hole of the final round and lost the individual title by a shot. She was bound not to let that happen again and this year she made five birdies on the last eight holes to shoot 71 and win by two shots. Kupcho is the first player with three consecutive top-six finishes at the NCAA Championship since Duke’s Amanda Blumenherst (2007-09).

The team race took an unexpected turn at the end of the day when Arizona junior Bianca Pangdaganan made eagle on the last hole to vault the Wildcats into an eighth-place tie, meaning they would enter a playoff with Baylor for the final spot in the match play portion of the championship.

The Wildcats got a reprieve because they played terribly for most of the day and dropped from third place to 10th at one point. In the playoff, Arizona ultimately defeated Baylor in an anticlimactic finish.

Best of the rest: Stanford played horribly the first round. So bad that it almost seemed like the Cardinal shot itself out of the championship. But they played steady over the next three days and ended with the fifth seed. This is the fourth year in a row that Stanford has advanced to match play.

Round of the day: USC shot a 5-under total on Monday, the best round of the day by six shots. They landed as the third seed and will play Duke in the quarterfinals.

Stanford sophomore Andrea Lee shot a 7-under 65, the best score of the day by three shots. Lee made seven birdies and no bogeys and vaulted up the leaderboard 11 spots to end in a tie for sixth place.

Biggest disappointment: Arkansas, the second-ranked team in the country, missed qualifying for match play by one shot. The Razorbacks shot a 20-over 308 in Round 1 and played only slightly better with a 300 in the second round. Consecutive 1-over-par 289 scores were a good try, but results in a huge miss for a team expected to contend for the team title.

Here are Tuesday morning's quarterfinal matchups:

Cut and not so dry: Shinnecock back with a new look

By Bradley S. KleinMay 21, 2018, 9:22 pm

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – The last time the USGA was here at Shinnecock Hills, it nearly had a train wreck on its hands. The last day of the 2004 U.S. Open was so dry and the turf so firm that play was stopped in the morning just to get some water on the greens.

The lessons learned from that debacle are now on display three weeks before Shinnecock gets another U.S. Open. And this time, the USGA is prepared with all sorts of high-tech devices – firmness meters, moisture monitors, drone technology to measure turf temperatures - to make sure the playing surfaces remain healthy.

Players, meanwhile, will face a golf course that is 548 yards longer than a dozen years ago, topping out now at 7,445 yards for the par-70 layout. Ten new tees have assured that the course will keep up with technology and distance. They’ll also require players to contend with the bunkering and fairway contours that designer William Flynn built when he renovated Shinnecock Hills in 1930.

And those greens will not only have more consistent turf cover, they’ll also be a lot larger – like 30 percent bigger. What were mere circles averaging 5,500 square feet are now about 7,200 square feet. That will mean more hole locations, more variety to the setup, and more rollouts into surrounding low-mow areas. Slight misses that ended up in nearby rough will now be down in hollows many more yards away.

The course now has an open, windswept look to it – what longtime green chairman Charles Stevenson calls “a maritime grassland.” You don’t get to be green chairman of a prominent club for 37 years without learning how to deal with politics, and he’s been a master while implementing a long-term plan to bring the course back to its original scale and angles. In some cases that required moving tees back to recapture the threat posed by cross-bunkers and steep falloffs. Two of the bigger extensions come on the layout’s two par-5s, which got longer by an average of 60 yards. The downwind, downhill par-4 14th hole got stretched 73 yards and now plays 519.

“We want players to hit driver,” says USGA executive director Mike Davis.

The also want to place an emphasis upon strategy and position, which is why, after the club had expanded its fairways the last few years, the USGA decided last September to bring them back in somewhat.

The decision followed analysis of the driving statistics from the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills, where wide fairways proved very hospitable to play. Players who made the cut averaged hitting 77 percent of fairways and driving it 308 yards off the tee. There was little fear of the rough there. “We didn’t get the wind and the dry conditions we anticipated,” says Davis.

Moving ahead to Shinnecock Hills, he and the setup staff wanted to balance the need for architectural variety with a traditional emphasis upon accuracy. So they narrowed the fairways at Shinnecock Hills last September by seven acres. They are still much wider than in the U.S. Opens played here in 1986, 1995 and 2004, when the average width of the landing areas was 26.6 yards. “Now they are 41.6 yards across on average,” said Davis. So they are much wider than in previous U.S. Opens and make better use of the existing contours and bring lateral bunkers into play.

This time around, with more consistent, healthier turf cover and greens that have plenty of nutrients and moisture, the USGA should be able to avoid the disastrous drying out of the putting surfaces that threatened that final day in 2004. The players will also face a golf course that is more consistent than ever with its intended width, design, variety and challenge. That should make for a more interesting golf course and, by turn, more interesting viewing.